Brioche: Springy Stitch or Rich Bread?

Brioche: Springy Stitch or Rich Bread?

The brioche stitch seems to have taken the knitting world by storm, inspiring several popular patterns (such as Purl Soho’s Brioche Cowl and Hat and Craftsy’s Rhonda Brioche Cowl) and books (Nancy Marchant). Where did brioche knitting come from?

Nancy Marchant’s Knitting Brioche (2010) was a good place to start in this investigative unraveling. In the nineteenth century, periodicals and ladies’ magazines often featured patterns for a “brioche.” According to Marchant, the earliest mention of a “brioche” is in The Ladies’ Knitting and Netting Book (second series, 1840 edition) by a Miss Watts where it was called a “Moorish Brioche or Cushion.” [1]

The Lady’s Assistant in Knitting, Netting, and Crochet Work from 1847 characterizes the cushion as “shaped exactly like an orange, indented at top and bottom, which is done by the fastening of the rosette, as will be described; the divisions, when worked, resemble the divisions of the orange when the peel is taken off.” [2] In the third volume, the book included a colorful rendition of the brioche with distinct segments and tassel:

ladysassistantfo03gaug_0013
Lady’s Assistant in Knitting, Netting, and Crochet Work, Volume 3

A pattern for a brioche cushion in Frances Lambert’s 1843 My Knitting Book clarifies the origin of the name: “so called from its resemblance, in shape, to the well-known French cake of that name.”[3] In 1856, Lambert’s pattern for a brioche was reprinted in Godey’s Lady’s Book with an image of the cushion:

Brioche godeys
“A Brioche,” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, 53 (July 1856): 69.

The popularity of a knitted cushion or footstool in the 1840s and 1850s reflected the Cult of True Womanhood (sometimes the Cult of Domesticity), an ideology prevalent during the Victorian era. After ascending the throne in 1837, Queen Victoria made domesticity central to her exercise of power. Women were expected to maintain a family and a home through cooking and cleaning, and forgo more frivolous or even intellectually challenging activities. Lady’s magazines across both sides of the Atlantic stressed the home as the sphere of womanhood, and represented women as content as the matriarch of their private realm.

50gody12
“The Sphere of Woman,” Godey’s Lady’s Book 40 (March 1850): 209

 

Women’s magazines rushed to provide patterns for women to create the ideal domestic sanctuary. Brioches (or hassocks or pouffes) in the parlor or drawing rooms were one way to convey the cozy warmth of domestic bliss. Although not a knitted brioche, artist Eastman Johnson included a foot cushion in his painting of the Hatch family (also–I spy knitting!):

Eastman Johnson
Eastman Johnson, The Hatch Family, 1870-1871, Oil on Canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Brioches went beyond knitting into needle work applique and crochet:

godey_jan57_2_lg Brioche
“Brioche Cushion,” Godey’s Lady’s Book (January 1857)

In calling brioches “Moorish or Turkish cushions,” Victorian era interior design reflected the reaches of colonialism with an interest in the exotic romanticism of far off regions. Americans had an opportunity to see international interiors with the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Home design evolved to include a “Turkish” or “Cozy Corner.” This was either a niche or sometimes a second parlor, but the décor emphasized soft furnishings and was intended for more private conversation.

cosy corner.jpg
Nineteenth-century photograph of a “Turkish corner”

By the late nineteenth century, brioche knitting began to be utilized for more than cushions. Nineteenth-century knitwear designer, Mrs. Jane Weaver, published a pattern for a hat strikingly similar to the rounded cushions. The brioche stitch was easily applied to tea kettle cozies, hats, and capes:

brioche hat petersons
“Child’s Scotch Cap,” The Peterson’s Magazine (December 1886): 554

An article in 1895 discussed the “once popular” cushions and the author urged readers to revive the domestic trend of soft luxuries. [4]

The brioche knitting continues to appear in twentieth-century patterns that require a ribbed, fluffy, and reversible stitch. But the nineteenth-century brioche cushion disappeared from knitting books as an outmoded design equated with the eclecticism of the Victorian era.

1950s cardigan columbia minerva book 733
1950s brioche knitted cardigan from Columbia Minerva Book #733

Yet I can’t help but make a connection between the Victorian brioche cushion to the popular knitted poufs of the 2000s and the current phenomenon of hygge (aka Scandinavian coziness). Although many of the knitted poufs are in basic stockinette or simple rib, the impulse to make one’s space comfortable and homey are similar to their nineteenth-century counterparts. One of the wonders of the internet has been the rise of DIY culture, allowing for customization and appreciation for handmade goods. Perhaps a response to modernity and its fast-paced lifestyle, DIY (and now makers) take great care in the slow production of home décor and food.

IMG_0398_medium2
My own knitted pouf, albeit not in brioche

Perhaps it is no surprise that hygge was right around the corner. A Danish word used to describe feelings of coziness and contentment flooded the internet with visions of candlelight, fresh baked bread, tea in bed, and all kinds of soft and warm clothing. Is this the twentieth-first century equivalent of “cozy corner”? Is this a cultural response to the anxiety of modernity?

While the brioche cushion may no longer reside in today’s homes, the desire for something warm and cozy has renewed popularity in the brioche stitch. Just something to think about when you’re knitting a tea cozy or mug warmer in the brioche stitch.

And that’s my first in-depth blog post. Hope you all enjoyed and stay tuned for future posts on double Berlin wool and the herring-bone stitch.

In knits and purls,

Erin


Footnotes:

[1] If you want to attempt the pattern yourself: Miss Watts, The Ladies’ Knitting and Netting Book (London: John Miland, 1840), 103-104.

[2] Mrs. [Jane] Gaugain, The Lady’s Assistant in Knitting, Netting, and Crochet Work, volume II (Edinburgh: I.J. Gaugain, 1847), 35.

[3] Frances Lambert, My Knitting Book (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1843), 21.

[4] “A Brioche,” How to Knit the Soft Foot Cushions That Were Once Popular,” Reno Gazette-Journal, December 13, 1895, 4.

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